Why Our Ancestors Were Shepherds

The family of our father, Yaacov (Jacob), had seventy members. The Torah records that during the great famine, the seventy members of Yaacov's family went down into Egypt, where Yaacov's son, Yosef, had become the viceroy of Pharaoh. In order to enable his family to preserve their Hebrew identity and their commitment to the Compassionate One, Yosef decided to settle his family in the separate province of Goshen, which also had good pasture land for their flocks. Yosef took five men from among his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh. The Torah then states:

"Pharaoh said to his brothers, 'What is your occupation?' They replied, 'Your servants are shepherds, both we and our fathers.' " (Genesis 47:3)

Dear Friends,

Why did our ancestors choose to be shepherds? The beginning of an answer to this question can be found in the following excerpt from the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 4:2, where he discusses the differences between the life of the farmer and the life of the shepherd:


Agriculture demands all of one's physical energies. The Divine decree "By the sweat of your countenance shall you eat bread" (Genesis 3:19) is applicable particularly to the tiller of the soil. He must devote himself totally to his physical existence. Self-pride and pride of possession are especially predominant in the tiller of the soil. The ground that the farmer has fertilized with his own sweat becomes for him a supreme value, becomes part of his personality, and he is caught up in it and settles down.

To be sure, agriculture stimulates and develops civilization. Most inventions and skills may be credited to agriculture. The settlement of the land implicit in agriculture leads to the formation of society and state and to the administration of justice. The decree upon the human being to work the ground opened the way to humankind's development.

On the other hand, a farmer is a slave to his field, which lowers him to the level of the soil. Once he places his neck under the yoke of the pursuit of possessions, his spirit, too, becomes bowed. He can be manipulated through his desire for property. This leads to slavery; one human being is subjugated to another. Moreover, the farmer can easily come to worship the forces of nature, on whose influence hinges the success of his field.

Agricultural peoples were the first to lose faith in God and in the higher dignity of the human being; it was in their midst that slavery and idolatry first emerged.

By contrast, there is much virtue and advantage in pastoral life. The shepherd works mainly with living creatures, and the care he extends to them fosters in him human feelings of tenderness and empathy. His property is movable. The flock needs the shepherd's care, but does not owe its very existence to the human being. As a result, the shepherd is saved from the danger of attaching too much value to himself and to his property. His vocation does not drain all his energy, or occupy his mind to a great extent, and he has time to elevate his spirit to Divine and humane values. Hence, our forefathers were shepherds, as were Moshe (Moses) and David.

Conversely, consider the antipathy of the ancient Egyptians towards shepherds and pastoral peoples. All the negative outgrowths of the agricultural mentality discussed above were found in Egypt. Egyptian culture was based on agriculture; its characteristic features were polytheism, on the one hand, and human enslavement, on the other. Work was the purpose of the human being. The individual per se had no value, no dignity, no freedom. The Egyptian was born a slave to his occupation. Faith in God, the freedom of the human being, and the human being's likeness to God remained alive only in the hearts of one tribe of shepherds: our ancestors. The Egyptian leaders were therefore very shrewd in instilling in their people an implacable hatred for pastoral peoples.

...By and large, it may be said that the human being was destined to till the soil, rather than to shepherd sheep. This was also the destiny of Israel - according to the Torah and by virtue of the Torah. However, the Torah also provides the antidote to the dangers posed by agriculture and institutes preventive measures against the idolization of property, The Sabbath and the Sabbatical year testify for all time that the earth belongs to God, and that the human being is His servant. (Rabbi Hirsch then mentions other agricultural mitzvos in the Torah, including those which mandate the sharing of the harvest with the needy.)

By means of these and other laws, the Torah solves the spiritual problem posed by agriculture, and calls for the establishment of an agricultural state whose people serve God and are united in fraternal equality. But in agricultural societies outside the sphere of the Torah, consciousness of God, along with human freedom and the equality of all human beings, are in peril.


In the above excerpt, Rabbi Hirsch explained that the shepherd works with living creatures, and the care he extends to them can foster in him human feelings of tenderness and empathy. It is therefore relevant to mention the following Midrash about Moshe Rebbeinu Moses, our Teacher:

"When Moshe Rebbeinu was tending the flock of Yisro in the wilderness, a little kid ran away from him. He ran after the kid until it reached the oasis, Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah, it came upon a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moshe reached it, he said: 'I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You must be tired.' He placed the kid on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: 'You are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd My flock, Israel.' " (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

The Midrash adds that before David became King of Israel, he was a shepherd who took care of his sheep with tenderness and compassion. For example, he would first allow the very young sheep to graze so that they could eat the softer grass; moreover, he was sensitive to the needs of each age group. As a result of his special sensitivity and compassion, David was chosen to shepherd the flock of Israel, as it is written:

"And He chose David, His servant, and took him from the sheep corrals. From behind the nursing ewes He brought him, to shepherd Jacob, His people, and Israel, His inheritance." (Psalm 78:70,71)

Have a Shabbat Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. A commentary on the Torah known as HaKsav V'HaKabbalah states that one of the reasons why our ancestors chose to be shepherds was to experience an elevation of the soul and awe of the Creator through viewing His wondrous creations. (Commentary to Genesis 4:2)

2. It is written: "And Yaacov journeyed to Succos and built himself a house, and for his flocks, he made succos (booths of shelter); he therefore called the name of the place, Succos" (Genesis 33:17).

It seems strange that Yaacov would name a place "Succos" just because he built there "succos" for his flocks. The Ohr HaChaim, a noted Sephardic kabbalist and biblical commentator, suggests that perhaps Yaacov was the first person to build "succos" - booths of shelter - for his flocks, as a result of his compassion for the animals. Jacob therefore named the place "Succos" in order to commemorate this historic innovation.

3. Our father, Yaacov, was also called Yisrael (Israel). And the Torah records that Yisrael said to his son, Yosef: "Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem...Go now, look into the shalom of your brothers and the shalom of the sheep, and bring me back word." (Genesis 37:13,14)

Yisrael asked Yosef to look into the "shalom" - peace and welfare - of his brothers, and to also look into the shalom of the sheep. Why did the sheep merit a special inquiry about their shalom? Was it simply an expression of concern for his property? According to our tradition, there was a deeper reason for his concern. The Midrash explains that Yisrael inquired about the shalom of the sheep because of a sense of gratitude to the sheep for all the benefits that he received from them. The Midrash states that we can therefore learn from Yisrael's words the following good trait: "A person should inquire about the shalom of anything that he benefited from" (Genesis Rabbah).

Another explanation is given by Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a noted sage of the early 20th century who was known as the Alter of Slobodka. He was a leading sage of the Mussar movement which developed a greater emphasis on the study of Torah teachings related to personality refinement and ethical behavior. The Alter of Slobodka explains that Yisrael inquired about the welfare of the sheep in order to emulate the universal Divine compassion and concern. For a person who is truly compassionate will be concerned about the welfare of animals, since all of Hashem's creation is important. (This teaching is cited in the book, "Growth through Torah" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This book offer insights from the Torah portion of each week which enhance each person's ethical and spiritual development.)

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